Merging visual art and sports has always been a tricky but tantalizing proposition.
It can come off as a half-baked audience-building ploy, like the 2010 Albright-Knox Art Gallery show about the Buffalo Sabres that tried to pass off beautiful promotional photographs as profound conceptual art. Or, like the current show “Art of Sport” running in CEPA and Big Orbit galleries through Nov. 3, it can venture so indiscriminately into the conceptual realm that many of its important insights about sports culture become too hazy for mere mortals to discern.
The exhibition, curated by artist Craig Smith, includes work that in some way intersects with or comments on sports by an impressive array of artists. These range from the photographer Catherine Opie, whose pristine and imposing prints of high school football games are on view on CEPA Gallery’s third floor, to the less enthralling projects of North Carolina-based conceptual artist Lee Walton.
Walton gets a surprising amount of real estate in the show. His most successful installation, “Fastball,” is simply a pitching machine installed in a long room on the first floor of CEPA. The night of the opening, dozens of gallerygoers lined up behind the machine to feed it baseballs, which were hurled at speeds approaching 100 mph at a reinforced wall at the other end of the gallery that now looks as if it was hit by a mortar attack.
While “Fastball” in its static state makes an elegant statement about the violence implicit in America’s supposedly idyllic favorite pastime, Walton’s other projects hardly register on the radar gun. A video project in which he films himself taking one golf shot a day for five months of “pure torturous joy,” complete with inane commentary on each shot, makes the most mundane television sport seem even more so. On Oct. 23, Walton will create a live installation based on the stats and rhythms of the first game of this year’s World Series using only items procured from Home Depot.
CEPA’s basement space features a compelling series of black-and-white photographs of fans’ reactions to live and televised sporting events by Vesna Pavlovic. It is formally accomplished but lacking sufficient clues to help us wade into whatever its conceptual depths might be.
Across from those photos, however, is a fine collection of 15 images by Hans van de Meer, many of them panoramic shots of a 2002 soccer match between Bhutan and Montserrat, then the two lowest-ranked soccer teams in the world. The series, in the straightforward way of photojournalism, tells a story about the centrality of the sport to the entire culture of poverty-stricken Bhutan. Also nearby is the excellent 2010 video work “Caryatid” on loan from the Albright-Knox by Paul Pfeiffer, who digitally edited out the bodies of NHL players hoisting the Stanley Cup to create a ghostly impression of an on-ice celebration.
A 2005 16mm film by Daria Martin called “Loneliness and the Modern Pentathlon,” while beautifully shot, struggles to reveal its point. It is a doleful meditation on the ancient Olympic sport in the vein of certain ’60s films, in which a seemingly perplexed woman wanders through scenes of swimming, running, shooting, horseback riding and fencing.
Even so, there are plenty of reasons to stop by CEPA Gallery or Big Orbit Gallery, where visitors can shoot arrows at a rotating sculpture by Mitch Miller, before the show wraps up. There’s also a full slate of accompanying events, including a symposium at the University at Buffalo’s North Campus on Nov. 8 and a screening of Bradley Beesly’s documentary “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo” in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre on Nov. 9.
What: “The Art of Sport”
When: Through Nov. 23
Where: CEPA Gallery, 617 Main St.; Big Orbit Gallery, 30D Essex St.
Info: 856-2717 or www.cepagallery.org